»  The Street Song from Lady Magnolia


The Street Song from Lady Magnolia


•  Background

In Chapter 68 of my 2000 novel Fire from the Sun the heroine has been shot during the clearing of Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Her brother, who works in Chinese Military Intelligence, has had her spirited out to Hong Kong, where she awakens from a sedated stupor in the apartment of a wealthy sympathizer.

Here she meets her benefactor.

She woke again in the evening. The door of the room was open. Apparently the symmetrical old woman had just come in. She was standing by the bedside now, watching the drip feed. She seemed not to be satisfied with the rate of drip, and fiddled with the knurled plastic adjustment wheel. Aware of Margaret watching her, she flicked her eyes to Margaret's face, then back to the drip. From beyond the open door came the sound of music. It was Beijing opera; one of the great stars of the Republican period, from the sound of it — Mei Lanfang, perhaps — singing Lady Magnolia.

Satisfied at last, the old woman padded out, but left the door open. Margaret lay listening to the music. She had heard the Lady Magnolia story from Uncle Fish, when they were huddled in the barracks during the Cultural Revolution.
Lady Magnolia

Wang Jinlong was a young scholar in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). He left his home in Nanjing to sit for the Imperial examinations in the capital. Exploring the various diversions the city had to offer, he became infatuated with Su San, a beautiful young prostitute. Jinlong gave her the name "Lady Magnolia," and spent all his money on her.

When the madam of the brothel saw he had no more money, she threw him out. Su San, who had fallen in love with Jinlong, went on strike, refusing to receive other customers. Enraged, the madam beat her, but she would not yield. At last the madam recouped her losses by selling Su San as concubine to an old gentleman in a distant town.

This man's wife was jealous of Su San's beauty, and besides had a lover; so she conspired with her lover to murder the old gentleman and put the blame on Su San. Su San was sentenced to death, but saved at last by Wang Jinlong, who had passed his examinations and become a judge. They married.
Of course Uncle Fish had bowdlerized for Margaret's benefit, referred to Su San only as a "song-and-dance girl" and her place of employment as a "tea-house." He had sung all the important parts for her, filling in the story between songs, until Half Brother came in and started making criticisms. An opera about a prostitute? scoffed Half Brother, using the actual word, which Margaret could not understand. Feudal rubbish! Whereupon, of course, Uncle Fish had stopped.

Now the singer had reached the Street Song. When Jinlong, flat broke, has left for his home in Nanjing, Su San, believing the madam will beat her to death, runs out into the street and appeals to anyone who will listen.
You gentlemen passing by, please pay heed!
Is any of you going toward Nanjing?
Pray tell him how Su San died; in the life to come
I'll be your dog or ho-o-orse in reco-o-ompe-e-e-e-nse!
But it seemed there was a second singer now, a rough man's voice tagging along with the recording. Approaching Margaret's room.
" … in reco-o-ompe-e-e-e-ense!"
This singer was no Mei Lanfang; his voice was hardly more than a croak. Neither would his movements have passed muster on the Beijing stage, Margaret thought, as he sailed into the room, one palm out in front of him, the other hand fluttering an imaginary fan. He was short and squat, with the coarse dark skin of a peasant, and teeth stained brown from tobacco. From above his left eye, across the temple to his ear, and continuing as a folded deformation across the ear itself, was a deep ancient scar. Margaret thought him in his late sixties. What mainly caught her attention, however, was his robe. It was a real old-style Mandarin's robe in rich silk. The fundamental color was a deep green, but the whole thing was fantastically embroidered in gold, silver, red and yellow. Margaret had never seen anything so fine.

The man dropped his opera pose and applauded himself in the western style, clapping his hands. He seemed to be in high spirits …

I took some liberties with the name and story of the opera for literary effect. It is actually called Springtime in the Jade Chamber (玉堂春, Yu Tang Chun) and Su San is under police escort when she sings the Street Song.

Some readers have expressed a desire to hear the Street Song, so here it is. I couldn't find a recording by Mei Lanfang (梅蘭芳), though there must surely be one. The best clip I could find on the internet was this one of late 20th-century female singer Yang Shurui (楊淑蕊).

•  Notes

"The sources of Chinese opera are mainly folk in origin … Chinese operas, unlike their European counterparts, traditionally have no known composers." — Liang Mingyue, Music of the Billion, Chapter 14.

"Sanlang" is another name for Wang Jinlong (literally "Third Son").


•  Play the song


•  Chinese lyrics


•  Translation

Su San has left Hongtong County,
Under escort on the highway,
The sorrow in my heart yet unspoken.
You gentlemen passing by hear my words:
Whichever is headed for Nanjing, turn aside.
Carry a letter for me to Sanlang
To tell Su San's fate.
In the life to come I'll become a dog or horse in recompense.

•  Pinyin transcription

Su San liliao Hongtong xian,
Jiang shen lai zai dajie qian,
Weiceng kai yan wo xin nei can.
Guowangde junzi ting wo yan:
Na yiwei qu Nanjing zhuan.
Yu wo na Sanlang ba xin chuan
Yan shuo Su San ba ming duan.
Lai sheng bian quan ma wo dang baohuan.